ADDISON COUNTY — Kim Farnsworth, who works in the front office at Mountain Health Center in Bristol, said the phones have been ringing off the hook with patients trying to track down a dose of the seasonal flu vaccine.
But right now, the clinic has bad news for those patients: Mountain Health Center, like many organizations in Addison County, still hasn’t received any shipments of the seasonal flu vaccine, let alone the H1N1 swine flu vaccine. So Farnsworth is taking down names and phone numbers, and she’s telling patients that the clinic will call when they can schedule flu shots.
Over the course of three days, that list has swelled to 80 names.
And Mountain Health is not alone. Health care providers across the state are facing a delay in the shipment of seasonal flu vaccines — not a shortage, according to Vermont Deputy State Epidemiologist Susan Schoenfeld.
While the vaccine is expected to arrive, that delay is creating headaches for health care providers and pharmacies that, for the time being, can’t satisfy what Schoenfeld said is an anecdotal uptick in interest among the public in getting vaccinated.
The reason for the delay is two-fold. Larry Goetschius, the executive director at Addison County Home Health and Hospice, said health care providers were advised during the summer to schedule their seasonal flu clinics earlier in the fall than usual this year, to pave the way for later H1N1 vaccination clinics.
The earlier clinics, though, didn’t give manufacturers enough time to build up their stockpiles of the vaccine. Typically, deliveries of seasonal flu vaccine are scheduled throughout September, October and November, but this year Goetschius said they were “frontloaded” in the early fall.
Plus, some health care providers think the rush to produce the H1N1, or “swine flu,” vaccine — which was administered in small batches for the first time this week in some parts of the country — meant vaccine manufacturers fell behind in their production of the seasonal flu vaccine.
Whatever the cause of the delay, many pharmacies and health clinics are still waiting for their first shipments to be delivered.
Marble Works Pharmacy in Middlebury is waiting for the 6,000 doses of seasonal flu vaccine it preordered last January. Marble Works was slated to provide doses of the vaccine to Mountain Health Center, as well as other doctors’ offices and flu clinics in the county.
Tom McDonald, a pharmacist at Marble Works Pharmacy, said his business heard in early September that its shipments would be delayed.
“We have spent about a month now scrambling to see if we can find any other alternative sources,” McDonald said. “Nobody has been able to deliver any to us. We’re not able to meet the pre-placed orders we had taken from doctors during the summer months.”
For now, those doctors are in what McDonald called a “holding pattern,” and he said he’s beginning to tell some physicians that it may be time to make “contingency plans.” McDonald said he hopes patients will be able to find doses of the flu vaccine from alternate sources, even if that means going to the pharmacy’s competitors.
“I’m hopeful that, out of the blue, one of these (distributors) may call me up,” McDonald said. “Right now, the more days that I don’t have anything, the more despondent I get.”
The delay is also causing headaches for home health organizations that often take the flu vaccine to homebound individuals. Goetschius said he’s not only concerned about getting doses for home health clients, but that he wants to make sure the care providers who work with Addison County Home Health and Hospice can be vaccinated.
Typically, home health agencies in Vermont administer roughly 30,000 doses of the seasonal flu vaccine every year, though that number fluctuates depending on the year. Though some agencies, like the Addison County Home Health and Hospice, are still waiting on their shipments, others have been a bit luckier. That’s according to Peter Cobb, the executive director of the Vermont Assembly of Home Health Agencies.
“I think the bottom line is that we’re still optimistic that this will be resolved in the coming weeks.” Cobb said.
In the meantime, Goetschius and pharmacists at Marble Works Pharmacy are urging individuals to consider tracking down vaccine clinics from other providers. Rite-Aid and Kinney Drugs are both offering clinics in the region in the next few weeks. Bristol’s Rite-Aid is scheduled to administer the vaccine on Oct. 21 and Nov. 18. Branches of the pharmacy in Rutland and Brandon will hold clinics on Oct. 20 and Nov. 17.
Kinney Drugs in Middlebury held its only flu clinic earlier this week, but will also provide flu shots in Vergennes on Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Also in the area, representatives from the Department of Health will be on hand on Tuesday, Oct. 13, from 7 to 9 p.m. at the American Legion in Middlebury to discuss how people can lessen the impact of the flu on families and communities.
There is no cure for influenza, but seasonal flu can be prevented with an annual vaccination. Health experts say prime candidates for flu immunization are: children between 6 months and 19 years old, pregnant women, people 50 years and older, people of any age with certain chronic medical conditions, people who live in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities, health care workers, adult and child caregivers, and anyone who live with or cares for those at high risk for complications from flu.
Schoenfeld, at the Department of Health, said that so far roughly 76,000 doses of the seasonal flu vaccine had arrived in the state. So far, she isn’t worried yet about the effect the delay might have on public health.
Typically, she said, the seasonal flu hits particularly hard in January and February. By that point, she’s confident more than enough doses will have made it to Vermont.
In the meantime, Schoenfeld and other health care providers are urging people to take the common sense approach to fending off the flu: Wash your hands, cover your mouth when you sneeze, and stay home from work or school if you fall sick.